Love unlimited

New Scientist has a fascinating news report on the psychology of polyamory – the practice of having multiple partners with the full consent of everyone involved.

Most Western societies have a focus on exclusively committed couples as the main family unit.

In contrast, people who are polyamorous feel themselves capable of more than one loving relationship and are often a part of a network of intimate lovers.

Crucially, lovers may not simply be sexual partners, and someone may be involved in several long-term committed relationships.

The dynamics of these relationships are bound to be different from traditional couples-based relationships, and psychologists are now starting to research how this affects the individuals and the social group.

Opinion is still divided on how successful these relationships might be in different spheres of life, although the field is really lacking in any systematic long-term studies.

So is poly more sustainable than monogamy? “Infidelity in monogamous relationships is estimated at 60 to 70 per cent, so it seems that attraction to more than one person is normal. The question is how we deal with that,” says Meg Barker, a professor of psychology at London South Bank University who presented her research into poly at the 2005 meeting of The British Psychological Society. “The evidence is overwhelming that monogamy isn’t natural,” says evolutionary biologist David Barash of the University of Washington, Seattle. “Lots of people believe that once they find ‘the one’, they’ll never want anyone else. Then they’re blindsided by their own inclinations to desire other attractive individuals. So it’s useful to know that this behaviour is natural.”

But as a mating strategy, poly may not be any better than monogamy; a person’s reproductive success may diminish if there is less pressure to be exclusive. “Jealousy is probably fitness enhancing,” Barash says. A more jealous male is likely to stick closer to his mate and prevent her from getting impregnated by other males. “A good look at human biology does not support polyamory any more than it supports monogamy,” he says. Biologist Joan Roughgarden, at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, goes further. “Polyamory won’t last. The likelihood of being able to successfully raise children in that context is very limited. My guess is that it’s not an evolutionary advance, but a liability.”

Link to NewSci article ‘Love Unlimited: The polyamorists’.

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